How The Indian Lived Off The Land

How The Indian Lived Off The Land

By Harold Preece

“If you think of him as a nomad who hunted and trapped his food, you’ll be surprised to learn that the Red Man was among the most sophisticated farmers in the world.”


The American Indian was a warrior and a hunter.  Yet he was also one of the foremost farmers of human history.  Everything else being equal, he would rather greet hungry whites with the nourishing yields of the earth than with spear and bow.  Chief Massosoit’s tribe—the Wampanoags—welcomed the Pilgrims with corn, squashes and pumpkins.  Otherwise the new Americans might not have pulled through their first winter in bleak Plymouth Colony.  Afterward, the bronzed first Americans identified all the edible native plants to these weary strangers, taught them not only how to cook the sustaining foods but methods of farming that would produce the most fruit and vegetables within the short New England growing season.


Girls grind corn for meal. America’s first agriculturists had many uses for corn, including the baking of corn bread, were innovators when it came to the preparation of root vegetables.

Journals of early explorers—English, French and Spanish—record the enormous stocks of food found among Indian tribes.  Not only meats preserved from animals, but huge supplies of vegetable provender skillfully dried to preserver nutritional sustenance.  Chances are that you eat Indian-derived foods nearly every time you sit down for a meal.  Corn on the cob-corn from cans or frozen packets or served as breakfast food or as the basic ingredient of corn bread, which is eaten particularly in the American South.  Cucumbers—though of disputed origin—in your salad.  Potatoes, boiled mashed, French fried or also as a salad element.  Peanuts processed into peanut butter or munched at ball games.  Squashes boiled or baked.  Pumpkins used in the pumpkin pies gracing Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner tables.  Tomatoes, which frightened people of European extraction believing them to be poisonous.  The total list would take up an entire column of this magazine.  As is, “more than 40 important food or economic plants” were “discovered, developed and grown by the Indians.”  So declares Dr. C. L. Lundell, director of the Texas Research Foundation,  which on October 10th, 1971, published in the Dallas Times-Herald, a short, but highly informative, account of agricultural methods used by those very first Americans.  “All they (the Indians) tad to work with was a hoe or spade or a stick,” Dr. Lundell commented this graphic study.  “Yet with those crude instruments they accomplished miracles.”

Probably the Indians learned the uses of agriculture by observation and domestication of wild plants.  Hunting parties may have noted that meat animals from the spirited buffalo to the timid rabbit fed and thrived on native wild grasses.  Or noticed birds pecking at the insides of gourds.  The conclusion was obvious:  What satisfied the hunger of beasts might also allay the often unsatisfied appetites of men.  Cultivation of an elemental sort would follow.  Makeshift hoes fashioned from sharp stones attached with deer skin thongs or buffalo gut to wide, flat sticks.  Sticks alone, round or flat, sharpened to points for the breaking of ground.  These were the Indian’s tools.  Nowhere in the world at that time, thousands of years ago, would mankind have dreamed up more serviceable agricultural implements such as the plow and the turning fork.  Through the process itself would last eons, special types of plants would be developed from those wild growths.  Gourds would contribute their derived progenies of pumpkins, squashes and cushaws sometimes miscalled kershaws.  From the massive roots of the poison-leafed nightshade would come that hearty and filling food, the potato.


Rotation of crops was regular practice of farming tribes long before white men arrived on scene to impart their knowledge. It was common to permit fields to lie fallow to give the earth “a rest.”

The Indians realized that certain kinds of plants grew better and produced more in various types of soil than in others.  Gourd-type plants, for example, do best in sandy soil.  Beans produce maximum harvests in black earth or, at least, the kind that isn’t mixed with sand.  He saw, also, that yields of crops were stunted where all plants were allowed to grow unchecked.  Potato plants for instance, would produce only nubbins if they had to share space and moisture with all others of their kind.  The same principle applied to corn, peanuts and all other forms of vegetation grown for food.  So he learned still another basic practice of agriculture-thinning plants, removing those that looked droopy and unpromising.  With the passing of time, he would learn to preserve the seeds of the best plants for next season’s sowing.  Since they knew little or nothing of fencing, early Indian agriculturists must have lost many crops to hungry herbivorous animals.  Eventual domestication of the watchful dog would somewhat ease that problem.  But these first farmers of the Americas had no way of coping with insect pests except to mash them on the spot.  However, birds accounted for many worms and bugs.  Indian units grew larger with assured food supplies.  Roving bands, living on game, nuts, berries and crabs or mussels, began establishing more or less permanent communities whose nuclei were the adjacent fields.  Small groups of kindred clans would gather into larger and more efficient tribes, occupying a common territory of shared hunting and farming grounds.

Meat continued as the basic fare.  But the addition of vegetables and combinations of the two undoubtedly contributed much to the splendid physiques which later European colonists would note—curiously and fearfully.  Through the Indian would never abandon hunting as such, food could be produced much more safely and in larger quantity than through the chase.  For the hunt, in itself, was a hazardous business. Particularly against animals powerful enough to defend themselves.  These had to be trailed afoot and then attacked with primitive weapons.  Before horses and firearms were used in hunting , buffalo could only be slain safely by the wasteful procedure of stampeding them over cliffs.  A rutting buck deer or a bull moose could tear an Indian to pieces.  Bear meat was mighty stomach filling.  But as a Chickasaw, Ed McCoy observes:  “The bear might eat the man before the man had a chance to eat the bear.”  Plants were gentle things by comparison.  If you knew how to coax them along, you were practically sure of always having something to eat even when game animals might come temporarily scarce or wander off to some other tribe’s hunting ground.

So the Indian for his own benefit learned to do more and more with plants.  He saw quickly the relationship between rainfall and farming.  To insure himself against the effects of drought, he erected storage places for harvest yields.  These were generally crude sheds built of stone or of wood covered with bark believed to be a natural insulant.  Almost every settled tribe would have large granaries for the storage of corn.  Cool cellars were often used to deposit potatoes and other perishable vegetables.  Indians living near salt licks had fewer problems of food preservation.  Some settled tribes were plagued by nomads who liked to eat but not to sow.  Raids by Navajos and Apaches troubled for centuries those highly-developed agrarian societies of the Pueblo tribes.  The Caddos and other agricultural groups in Texas constantly feared the onslaught of the Voracious Comanches.  The peaceful Algonquins of lower New York feared the assaults of the powerful upstate Iroquoian warriors.  “The Iroquios didn’t leave us an ear of corn or a squash growing in the patch,” said Angonquins.  Mrs. Ann Harding Murdock, leader of the still surviving Algonquin tribe, said in Flushing, New York, “What they didn’t carry back to their own storehouses they burnt.  So that we had to exist on mussel shells or whatever fish we could catch out of Jamaica Bay.”  The Indian learned early the relation of rain to cycles of crop production.  For dry spells were all round destroyers of both animals and food sources.  On religious levels, many tribes composed ceremonial chants or developed ritualistic dances to coax rain from scorching skies.  Some medicine men set themselves up as “professional” rainmakers.  Some are still to be found among tribes in Oklahoma.

The Huaco (Waco) Indians of central Texas would always go fishing before planting their corn.  Inside each fish pulled out of the Brazos River they would insert five kernels of the grain, then bury it in a furrow.  Four of those seeds were offerings to agricultural deities—the earth god, the rain god, the sun god and the special corn god.  The fifth kernel was for the expected plant itself—another way of assuring that at least one grain would sprout in the decaying fish carcass and emerge above ground. Other tribes however were more scientific in their solution of the water problem.  And in doing so, developed very adequate systems of irrigation.  In the Arizona Desert section can found a masterpiece of ancient engineering.  There are the remains of a system of canals built supposedly by the vanished Hohokam people approximately 2,000 years ago.  The passageways of this complex remained so thoroughly intact that the builders of the great Roosevelt Dam were able to utilize them for stored water when the dam was constructed in 1911.  It is estimated that the Hohokams were able to irrigate a quarter of a million acres from this impressive criss-cross of locks and ditches. Arizona’s capital city of Phoenix lies on the site of 800-year-old Pueblo Grande, built by Indians living along the irrigation ditches making fertile that saucer-shaped indentation called the Valley Of The Sun.  Today Phoenix is again a great center of irrigated farming thanks to those original contributions of vanished native peoples.

New Mexico Pueblos have their Blue Lake irrigation complex which is not only a sort of a vast, outdoor religious shrine but has furnished water for their fields during centuries that not even the oldest tribal priests can calculate.  But conversely a flourishing Indian agricultural civilization in the Texas Panhandle perished during the 13th Century after one of this area’s periodic cycles of drought.


Without benefit of DDT, Indians had unique methods of controlling pests, getting maximun yield from earth. Many tribes turned to farming because of dangers of game hunting.

As time went on, Indian agrarian also learned the principle of crop rotation.  For planting a field, year after year with the same growths can destroy its vitality by creating a gradual chemical imbalance of soil with root and seed.  Those fine farmers, the Cherokees, were reluctant to sow a field with corn for more than two years in succession.  On a third year they might grow pumpkins, or peanuts with their nitrogen fertilizing content,  though of course they knew nothing about nitrogen as an element.  For that matter, neither did any other people before the development of chemistry as a science.  Some tribes would allow a field a year of rest after four or five years of successive cultivation.  During that year the field would lie fallow, sprouting nothing but grass, weeds and shrubbery.  At the end of that period, the ground would again be cleared with hoes and shovels.  The wild growth, however, would not be burnt after the fashion of so many future white farmers but “turned under” as fertilizer for expected new crops.  Many Indians used compost made from dead vegetation, food scraps, animal bones or what-have-you to fertilize farms.  From white settlers, they learned the use of manure dropped from horse and cows.  By vague legends heard in the Oklahoma hills, some tribes buried the corpses of their fallen foes in farm lands.  The vitality possessed by slain warriors in life was supposed to pass to the plants growing from their remains.  It’s a grim kind of folklore that nobody has ever been able to prove.

Through cross-fertilization and comparable techniques the Indian developed four major types of corn—flint, dent, four-sweet and popcorn.  One could speculate about the taste of corn popped in hot bear grease.  Corn was a valuable food for hunting parties because it could be transported easily in pouches of bark or hide.  Stones to grind it into meal, were easily come by.  Meal, boiled in water, flavored with berries, or wild herbs, was palatable fare.  As far as we know, all the Indian breads originated from corn meal.  Corn could also be used as bait for wild turkeys.  Boiled and seasoned properly it became that dish called hominy eaten today in the South and Southwest.  Because corn and its production figures so largely in the Indian economy, it became the focus of complex religious rituals and of the unwritten Indian calendar.  Across a wide area of America, tribes observed the annual Green Corn Dance according to whatever month the precious grain ripened in this or that given section.  The dance was a time for music, for feasting, with some tribes of unrestrained lovemaking: the fertility of humans symbolizing the fertility of earth.  Love was supposed to be a force guaranteeing that the next corn harvest would be a bountiful one.  Practically all the Southern tribes regarded this harvest festival as the beginning of their New Year.  Beginnings of months were determined by the rise of the full moon, regarded too as an auspicious time for planting.

Perhaps around the Thirteenth Century, Indians learned contour farming, today an accepted principle of scientific agriculture.  Briefly this method involves breaking ground according to the natural “lay of the land.”  Some plots should be broken in a north by south direction rather than an east by west.  Involved are such factors as natural drainage, the inter-connecting earthworm structures which keep under-soil loose for the distribution of rainfall, the slope of the land and its corresponding drainage pattern.  Modern scientists work all this out by elaborate principles of applied geometry.  The Indian knowing science only by instincts, managed such a complex task because his mind was in tune with the very rhythms of the earth itself.  Modern scientists work all this out by elaborate principles of applied geometry.  The Indian knowing science only by instincts, managed such a complex task because his mind was in tune with the very rhythms of the earth itself.  All this agricultural activity necessarily presupposed a maximum use of human skills.  Nevertheless white Americans have been told that the male Indian was a lazybones bestirring himself only to hunt or scalp while his wife did all the manual work, including the planting and cultivation of crops.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  In every known human society, there have been divisions of labor based upon sex.  These tribal groupings of the American Indian were no exceptions to a universal rule.  Generally speaking, the male tribesman was occupied primarily with hunting, fishing, religious ceremonies, arrow-making, the manufacture of spears from wood except in rare instances where a little metal might be available, the building of canoes, the training of older boys as warriors and huntsmen.  Woman tended children—what’s unusual about that—skinners slaughtered animals, then fashioned hides into clothing and teepees, cooked, though they had no monopoly on it, kept the campsites clean, prepared young girls to be wives and since they were more regularly at home, tended the fields.  Yet there were occasions when the whole tribe turned out en masse to plant and sow or to reap.  On a certain day designated by the tribal priesthood men, women and older children would gather for that chore.  Prayers invoked the rain god, the earth god, the sun god and whatever special deity that might be apropos—the pumpkin god, the Potato Spirit or the Corn Mother.  A designated work chief would then assign to each individual or family appointed tasks.  Carrying hoes and shovels and their pointed sticks, maybe sowing or reaping bags, the tribesmen would begin their long, hard stints.

The Indian kept progressing toward an agricultural type of civilization as economic and political pressures in unknown countries across the ocean accelerated to insure his ultimate downfall.  He developed at least elemental methods of controlling ravaging insects.  He learned how to grow melons through some authorities believe these, like the cucumber and certain other gourds, to be African in origin.  He domesticated the wild sunflower for its seeds, nutritious, supposedly medicinal, and for enticing birds.  Today, records Dr. Lundell: “Commercial sunflower production for the (Texas) Backlands is now being studied by some agronomists in the area.”

Indian in New Mexico plows field.

Indian in New Mexico plows field. Before use of draft animals for such chores, farmers used make-shift tool for sod-turning. But hard work, however, insured full bellies for all members of the tribes.

Finally came that most fateful day in the history of the American Indian:  October 12th, 1492.  On a balmy afternoon, some amazed Indian farmers of the Bahama Islands saw a mammoth boat anchor and begin discharging men of strange garb, hue and speech.  Their chief: a foreign adventurer named Christopher Columbus.  His journals also attest to the fertility of tribal fields.  Horticultural products accounted for 75 per cent of the Indian diet at the time of Columbus.  So said two eminent anthropologists, Harold E. Driver and William C. Massey, in an overall study of aboriginal economics published by our country’s oldest scholarly organization, the American Philosophical Society, during 1957.  When the Indian obtained the horse and the gun, game hunting became safer and more effective.  But the whites by indiscriminate slaughter, kept decimating his main source of meat protein:  the buffalo.  And as the great beasts dwindled, even the major tribal structures like those of the Sioux and the Cheyenne and the Utes began crumbling.  Finally Indians were eating scraps of anything that they could find anywhere.  Most of the impoverished, land-hungry European immigrants were farmers either by background or by necessity.  At first the Indian tribes weren’t disturbed by their presence since they usually appeared in small groups.  For Indians themselves were a small people numerically.  Probably the total aboriginal population of what would become these United States never exceeded more than 800,000 persons scattered among several hundred tribes and sub-tribes.  The Indians felt there was plenty of land for all since the earth was a gift of the gods to all peoples treading its surface.  White traders were welcomed not only because they brought blankets, mirrors, cloth and other merchandise to be traded for furs, hides and other Indian-derived commodities but also because they stocked farm tools and implements that the tribes had never seen before:  nails, hammers, wheel-barrows, iron shovels, tin buckets, clevices, most importantly plows with metal shares penetrating the soil more deeply and evenly than those makeshift ones of the tribes.  But the impoverished masses of Europe kept crowding and pushing into the New World.  Their steady pressures, their birth rate, their numerical superiority, their greed for land, their acquisitive mentalities, would result finally in America’s original pioneer farmers being exiled to skimpy reservations with the poorest soil and the lowest crop yields.

Yet as the Indian starved, the demand grew for those foods developed by his skill as agriculturist.  “White Americans won the frontier on two common Indian foods—parched corn and the meat of wild turkeys,” declared Horace P. Bryan, a Cherokee descendant and agricultural writer in the authoritative magazine, Organic Gardening.  For plentiful quantities of the fire-blackened cooked grain could be carried like popcorn in bags of hide or burlap.  By itself, parched corn could become monotonous fare.  But it made a satisfactory side dish eaten with fresh roast turkey or a deer steak.  From Indians, settlers almost everywhere learned how to utilize watercress and other edible plants in the channels of creeks and rivers.  Early Minnesota homesteaders saw tribespeople harvest the wild rice so plentiful in the lake regions and added this nutritious food to their diets.  Out in the semi-desert areas of the West, even that forbidding cactus, the prickly pear, yielded bright red fruit that could be divested of its thorns and eaten raw, or converted into preserves after the observed fashion of Indians and their near relatives, the Mexicans.

In less than two centuries after the discovery of America, imported Indian foods had also changed the diets of one European country after another.  The potato became the stable food of the masses in many nations.  A failure of the potato crop, due to a plant blight, resulted in the terrible Irish famine of 1845-46.  Ireland is still a leading potato-producing country.  In fact many of us call the spuds we buy in grocery stores “Irish potatoes” when they were grown right here inour own land as another part of that heritage which we have from the American Indian.  Europeans learned how to produce nourishing bread from a flour which may have first been developed by the Indians.  You can buy loaves at unique little bakeries in many American cities, particularly in neighborhoods with heavy concentrations of German and Czech families.  Indians learned how to do many things with native berries, knowledge passed on to America and the rest of Europe.  Algonquin Indians were probably the first to dig cranberries from the bogs of New Jersey.  What would a Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner be without turkey and cranberries?

One Response to How The Indian Lived Off The Land

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